Saturday, July 28, 2007

Finding the Story

Jim and I have been working on this film about teen parents on and off for 13 months. We have interviewed parents and counselors and doulas and administrators and health care professionals all to help paint the picture of these young lives. We have been working very closely with a non-profit called Teen Parent Connection. The TPC folks are incredibly upbeat and positive and everyone we have dealt with on this project is nice and caring. There is no judgment or negativity or religious affiliation, or politics, just positive actions. It is as if they have over dosed on Happy Pills. For a cynical, ironic guy like me it is very disconcerting- why is everyone so nice I ask myself.

So, the other day, on what might be our next to last day of production, we were interviewing their executive director and I asked her, "What makes you different from other social service organizations?" And she said, "We talk the talk because we walked the walk. Many of the staff and administrators (herself included) where teen parents themselves."

Ah! that's what makes them different. (Note to self, next time ask this question like 9 months ago.)

My point here is not about teen parents, but about the process we go through to paint a complete picture. Our not realizing this was not our fault- Teen Parent Connection does not promote themselves as a place for teen parents by teen parents, nor do any of these women wear their past on their sleeves. We needed these 13 months as a time of discovery. This little, almost anecdotal, piece of evidence will completely change our approach to the edit. And we may even decide to go shoot some more from this point of view.

In an earlier post I talked about good, fast cheap- pick two. In this case I hope you see why fast was not picked. We needed the time to find the story to make the best film possible.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Boy and his Camera

Something happens when you bring out a motion picture camera to both those in front of the camera and those of us on the other side. Anyone who has seen a home movie knows what happens when the camera appears- your inner ham comes out. Even professional actors have their on-camera personality and know how and when to turn it on and off.

Something similar happens on the other side of the camera too. In Victimless Crimes about half of my cast gets killed and the other half does the killing. This means I had to film lots of shooting, strangling and stabbing. These scenes- which in another film I would watch through my fingers- just seemed like work. When a take was over I would say let's do it again and the actor who had been shot or stabbed changed his clothes, put on new squibs (exploding blood packs) and an hour or so later we did it again. This went on all night.

My point is that as a filmmaker you shoot until you get what you need and the camera gives me confidence I don't have in my regular life.

While shooting a TV commercial for OFF, the mosquito repellent, we had to make a ten-year old boy stick his arm into a transparent box full of mosquitos and hold it there, still, for 30 seconds. He did and he got bitten and there were tears and I felt like Hell but it was the job and we had to do it. (He was wearing the "other leading brand" which wasn't as good as OFF, but he was well compensated and his parents knew what they signed up for.)

Today, Jim and I are wrapping up a documentary about teen parents and I sit opposite these young woman and ask them very personal, very probing questions about choices they made (or in some cases didn't make) . It's not something I would do if the camera wasn't there and I have to get into another mindset in order to do it, but again it is part of the job. I am always surprised when they open up and start revealing themselves to me. The power of the camera is really working for me in these instances.

Now I need to remember the next time I ask for a raise to bring a camera with me. No one can say no to a boy and his camera.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Scary Movie

Julie and Gibson, my downstairs neighbors, are moving this weekend. (Thanks for the bottle of wine, it was- notice the past tense- a Coppola; they know what the dumb filmmaker likes.) On Saturday we were at our block party and Julie very casually announced that she thinks they have a ghost in their unit. She described a series of strange events- a mirror somersaulted off the bathroom wall, bounced on the floor and landed in the tub as Julie was drawing a bath. The mirror and Julie were not damaged. She also mentioned strange chills, a clock that lept off the wall and skidded across the room, cheese that mysteriously flew across the room and hit Gibson, and a variety of other ghostly misdemeanors.

Cool. And better them than me.

All this started me thinking about scary movies and by far, BY FAR the scariest film I have seen in a theater is Manhunter by Michael Mann. It is a Hannibal Lecter film. He is played by the terrific Brian Cox- yet the true star of the film is not Bill Petersen, but the director Michael Mann a good Chicagoan, like Petersen and his co-star Dennis Farina. Mann styles up this film with a ton of eye candy- my guess is FBI agents don’t fly on private jets and have $1000 lamps on their desks.

The short version is that FBI manhunter Peterson has to go to Hannibal Lecter to figure out who the serial killer is. It turns out he is a man, (played by Tom Noonan) who develops Super 8mm film. He knows his victims because he has seen their home movies. He breaks into their homes, kills them and removes their eyes.

When I saw it in 1986 it scared Holy Hell out of me. I was going out with a woman who lived on the 11th floor, she kept her windows open and all that summer I swear I felt Tom Noonan was going to crawl through that window.

I met Tom Noonan a few years later. He is a really nice guy. In addition to acting he also has written and directed films- he scores them as well. Check out his film The Wife. Finally, here is an interesting side note- both Noonan and Ted Levine, who was the real bad guy in Silence of the Lambs were in Heat also directed by Michael Mann. About 10 years ago I used to play basketball with Ted Levine- he threw a mean elbow and no one would get under the basket with him because they remembered him as Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs.

While I start hanging out with different types of characters, somebody call Ghostbusters.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Half Baked or a Good Idea?

I often wonder where good ideas come from. I have lots of ideas, many good, many overlooked, and many not so good ones. I have always liked Michael Keaton's character in Night Shift who was forever coming up with half baked ideas that he would talk into a tape recorder- here's an example.

"What if you mix the mayonnaise in the can, WITH the tunafish? Or... hold it! Chuck! I got it! Take LIVE tuna fish, and FEED 'em mayonnaise! Oh this is great.
[speaks into tape recorder] Call Starkist!" (I must digress, my favorite Michael Keaton line has got to be "220-221 whatever it takes" in response to Martin Mull in Mr. Mom.)

Paul Simon wrote a song called Think Too Much and then, like anyone who thinks too much, wrote another song called Think Too Much. I think young artists often fall into a trap of over thinking things. Often, the easiest solution is the best solution. This goes back to something I wrote about a long time ago- the enemy of good is better. Over thinking a problem often leads to more trouble. I usually rely on my instincts and first impressions. If the original idea sticks with me, then it is probably worth pursuing. It might need some shaping and tinkering, but if the basic idea has some traction I am going to stick with it.

Jim and I began shooting a new documentary yesterday. The other day I said let's have the interviewees talk directly into the camera (as opposed to me off to the side). It is something we have only done once before and an aesthetically not my favorite choice, but in this case it worked. The feeling is very intimate- as if the viewer is being let in on a secret. I think I have devoted more time writing about it here than I did thinking about it, yet I knew it was a good and valid idea. I guess one could argue that I also used 20 years of experience to get that flash of an idea, but that's another post.


Sunday, July 22, 2007

Hello, Goodbye

Close readers (and viewers of the Danny Boyle interview) of this page will have noticed some changes of late. Gone from the about me section is a reference to Columbia College in Chicago and in its place is a description of my new role at Flashpoint Academy.

Yes, after nearly 12 years teaching in the Columbia College film department, I have left to be "the film guy" at Flashpoint. I told the Columbia administration at the end of May I was leaving and I have been on the Flashpoint payroll since June 1. Due to student commitments, I just recently broke the news to my Columbia classes. By far the most difficult part of leaving was saying goodbye to my current, former and future students.

At the end of each semester I tell students, " Like it or not, once you are my student you are always my student." They can, forever, ask me to screen cuts, read scripts or just chat. Of course the big secret is that I learn way more from them than they will ever learn from me.

Classes start September 17 at Flashpoint and there is a lot of work left to do. In the weeks to come you will read more about our progress and I will provide details. For starters click on those links to the right and you can see the Flashpoint website and the blogs of Simeon Peebler, chairman of the Gaming Department and Perry Harovas, chair of Visual FX and Animation.